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Just in time for the whole family to file into the multiplex on a silent Christmas night when there’s nowhere else to go: a return to the magnified dysfunction of the Focker household, and the cozy holiday glow of some paychecking celebrities.
This began a decade ago in Meet the Parents, a diverting, focused, well-played degradation ceremony in which Ben Stiller’s male nurse, Gaylord “Greg” Focker, was put on constant self-defense by then-fiancée Pam’s Dad. Played with fierce decorum by Robert De Niro, the ex-CIA hardcase Jack Byrnes leveled loaded questions that backpedaled Greg into blurting things like: “You can milk just about anything with nipples.”
Stiller, with a fully intact returning cast, proves that he can even milk a premise. The third installment of the Focker franchise, Little Fockers plays out during the build-up to the fifth birthday party for the now-long-married Pam and Greg’s titular twins, integral to the movie only as pawns in the grown-up games. Jack, having gotten a glimpse of his own mortality, has reconciled himself to accepting Greg as the family’s “next-in-line” head. From the outset, the once-besieged mensch’s long struggle to establish his manhood seems nearly won. This détente lasts about as long as it takes Greg and Jack to sit down together at a dining room table, an environment fraught with hazard in all Focker films.
The elder Fockers, Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand’s New Age Jews Roz and Bernie, are mercifully on the sidelines for much of Little Fockers. But adding to Greg’s stress is the appearance of Andi Garcia (Jessica Alba), an aggressively perky, flirtatious pharmaceuticals flack who wants him to be the face of a new boner pill. This comic rifle-on-the-wall goes off when Jack, his suspicions aroused, sneaks a “Sustengo” from a sample case for a pajama-tent sight gag and an “If you experience an erection lasting more than four hours” panic scene that has lost none of its impact since it appeared in I Think I Love My Wife three years ago.
Andi might pose a serious menace to the sanctity of the nuclear family were it not for the fact that she’s one of those farcically unbalanced twentysomething party sluts that the world outside of matrimony is full of according to American screen comedies. Challenging the Fockers’ fidelity from the other side is Pam’s multi-millionaire mystic ex-fiancé, Kevin (Owen Wilson, still hoarding the best lines). But he, too, poses no real threat, since the character of Pam (Teri Polo) has never had much existence of her own—she spends a goodly portion of Little Fockers quarantined in sickbed, and it’s doubtful anyone would notice if she didn’t come back, so focused is Fockers on the relationship between Greg and Jack. A scene where the two are confused for gay partners when scouting a posh “Early Human” kindergarten lets surface the subtext that has run through the Fockers trilogy.
Ghosts of New Hollywood haunt Little Fockers, which, in addition to featuring De Niro, Streisand, Hoffman, and Harvey Keitel in a throwaway appearance as a contractor, includes more or less explicit references to The French Connection, The Godfather, and Jaws—which are neither funny nor apposite, but evidently thought to be Boomer-recognizable. Another interesting note to students of cinematic Decline and Fall are the sops to the younger audience, including Google and YouTube punchlines. When television appeared, mainstream American film comedies treated the upstart competition as a target for contempt and fun—here, a closing-credits gag nails the “Slap Chop Rap” somebody probably forwarded you a year ago, as Fockers wheezes to catch up with meme faddism.
“We have to laugh at the stuff that makes us human,” explains Bernie Focker in the last reel. (SPOILER: Everybody learns to get along, and family supersedes horrifying personality disorders.) Bernie’s list includes expelling gas—and, presumably the rest of the film’s mildly desperate scrambling for bits: the lasagna-chunked vomit, the clumsy sexual slapstick, and a little of the old-school ethnic rivalry stuff that carried the last Fockers romp. (Jack, tracing the family tree, notes Greg’s preponderance of “Wandering peddlers and nameless peasants.”) Game performances and a couple of half-laughs, sure, but this is the screen comedy equivalent of the televised Yule log.